How to deliver feedback without getting your head bitten off

Ryan Ginn Relationships

Giving your partner feedback about certain behaviors can be a difficult conversation to navigate. It’s hard to bring up negative things about another person without them becoming defensive and shutting down, especially when that person is the other half of your primary relationship. 

The problem primarily stems from an inability to see feedback from our partner as anything other than criticism. 

We all have natural tendencies to take things personally, which can lead us into trouble when we don’t take the time to understand our partner’s intentions. If we learn how to more effectively differentiate feedback from criticism, we’ll be able to get more of what we want in our relationships. 

There are three main elements to this: through leading with relief, owning our part, and being clearer in our requests of our partners. 

It’s easy to get stuck in this mindset of feedback being criticism

I’d like to emphasize that it’s incredibly easy to get stuck in this. People don’t like to be told to do things differently. They hear that as the notion that there’s something wrong with them, or the person doesn’t appreciate them, or they’re not enough. They get defensive, which makes you fight, and as a result you finally end up deciding not to ask for things or point out annoying habits from your partner. You just learn to hold it in, until it eventually bubbles over in the form of passive aggressiveness and nasty comments. 

Lead with relief

The key to solving this problem is all in the approach. Rather than jumping straight to the feedback itself, try starting with an acknowledgment and an appreciation of your partner’s efforts, and what they were trying to do. 

For example, if your partner went and picked up soy milk for you, but they got the sweetened version instead of your preferred unsweetened kind, then start by expressing your appreciation that they went out and got it for you in the first place. Then, you can begin to express the importance of this small issue for you, and politely ask if, in the future, they could make more of an effort to pay attention to the sweetness level of the soy milk when they’re shopping. 

Own your part

People don’t like to be seen as the culprit. They like to feel like they aren’t being blamed for problems in a relationship; at the very least, they want to share the blame. 

We can help our partners not get defensive by altering our approach to shift some of the blame away from them. This doesn’t mean we take on the full brunt of the blame ourselves, but we place it less squarely on their shoulders and help them carry it by owning our part in the situation, too.

For example, this could look like you, bringing up certain issues that bother you, but in a careful way that deliberately involves both of you in the solution. Talking about the mutual benefit of a solution being found, and how it can improve your relationship as a whole, is key to helping them understand why this matters to you.

Be clear in your requests

Another key element here is to ensure you are asking for something that’s both clear and doable. 

Criticism typically isn’t received well when it’s too broad and doesn’t provide a clear action as to how the problem can be avoided in the future. 

For example, saying something like “You never appreciate me” is too broad to be properly understood, and you likely won’t see the change in behavior that you desire as a result. A better approach would be to say something like, “I don’t feel like you really appreciate the fact that I cook dinner for us most nights. I would really love it if you pointed out something you enjoyed about the meal when I cook for you. It would help me feel more appreciated in this regard.” 

Then, the feedback becomes less of a criticism and is perceived more of a request aimed at improving the relationship overall.

The take-home idea here is the importance of clarity. Getting what you want starts with being clear about what exactly that is.